Developing Your Writing Process: Free Association

Mar 21, 2014 by

Here at Indie Jane, we’ve talked a lot about writing process, and usually, the words “planning” and “pantsing” (flying by the seat of your pants) come into the conversation.

But what are we really talking when we use these terms? What does all this signify when it comes to personality and the creative process? And what is the best way to create a novel?

What we are really talking about when we compare planners and pantsers is when the writer feels most comfortable free associating. In the context of novel writing, free association is just thinking whatever thoughts come to mind—without self-censorship or shame—and connecting them to form a plot or develop a character. You could call it brainstorming, letting the story tell itself, letting the characters introduce themselves, or letting the muse speak. Whatever. But it all comes down to this question: Do you prefer to free associate during the planning stages or during the writing of the novel?

Where do you fall on the planning continuum?

On the writing process spectrum, planning and pantsing are the two extremes. Some writers prefer to create a thorough outline before they put the first words on the page. They may also fill out worksheets or use other tools to create characters, themes, symbols, you name it. Maybe they fill out job applications for their characters, do their taxes, collect inspiration photographs, etc. They enjoy worksheets and charts and use them to plan every aspect of the novel, most of the time before they start the actual writing. But what they are really doing is free associating during the planning stage. Once they have completed the free association process, they begin writing with a concrete plan for how the story and characters should develop.

Other writers don’t do any of those things. In fact, pre-writing exercises have the opposite effect on them. Whereas a planner needs to have most of the blanks filled in before writing, creating a thorough outline and having a defined plan can literally stop a pantser in their tracks. These writers feel most comfortable when they begin with the bare necessities and allow ideas to form as they write. Trying to write a defined plan before they being the writing process actually stops the free flow of ideas. Pantsers prefer to free associate as they write.

Both planners and pantsers are actually doing the same thing—free associating—but they do it at different times in the writing process.

Is one better than the other? Will one extreme make a wrtier’s life easier?

There are pros and cons to each. Planners may feel bound to their outlines, even if a better idea comes along in the writing process. They may not want to let go of the hours of hard work in the planning stages in order to jump on a better idea. They may feel as if they have wasted a lot of time and effort if they change the path of the novel later in the game. If they do scrap the old plan for the new one, they may have to stop writing and redo the entire outline and plan from the beginning. Planners may also enjoy planning so much that they never get around to writing or they may have put so much pressure on themselves with an incredible plan that they fear the novel will never live up to their expectations.

Pantsers are always willing to change, and that results in a lot of extra writing and “wasted” text. Because they free associate while writing, they may not have defined their characters fully or fleshed out the plot completely until they have gotten quite far into the book. Pantsers usually do more rewrites for this reason. Pantsers also risk becoming distracted by research in the midst of the writing process, and their plots may meander if they do not have a good understanding of story structure.

Both types of writers are again in the same predicament. As the story develops and new ideas occur, sometimes our efforts seem “wasted.” But in my view, nothing is wasted. You can always use rejected scenes as short stories or move them to other books. Same with outlines and other research. You can use it all in the future. Nothing is wasted.

Many writers naturally fall more toward one end of the spectrum or the other, but the middle is probably where we ought to strive to be. We ought to plan just enough to avoid extensive rewrites, and pants just enough so that we are ALWAYS comfortable making a big change for the improvement of the book.

Next month, we’ll talk about some ways to move to the middle of the spectrum. I think I’ll call that article “Planning While You Pants.”

Ps. If you are following my Southern Fraud Thriller series, Moral Hazard will be out on ebook by Monday, March 24. Or sooner!

After that, I’ll be working on my new Austenesque novella Mary Bennet!

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  1. It seems like some of been very pants-y (not pansy) and others have been very much ordered and planned. But mostly, I am organized in retrospect. So apparently I am more pants-oriented with writing. With the rest of my life, I’m a planner. One thing I’ve liked about writing is that it has made me less Type A with other areas. Though I really should clean my house more often.

    • I’m a planner in my “real” life too, but I am a pantser all the way when it comes to writing. I’m trying to develop my process so that I fall more in the middle of the spectrum though. :D

  2. Robin Helm

    Interesting post. I do some of both, but I always get new ideas while I write. I suppose I’m more of a pantser than a planner.

  3. Can you call your article next month, “Planning With Your Pants On?” Just because it would make me laugh.

    I’m fairly far toward the planning side, but I don’t make myself adhere rigidly to my outline. Well… the rough draft usually stays pretty close to the original idea. Then, after I’ve let it sit, I read over it and see if it makes sense. It’s basically another free association time–what scene could I put here to increase the tension, how could I show the character better in this moment, etc. And then I rewrite, again based on notes.

    • Nancy, did I tell you I got Book in a Month as you suggested? I haven’t finished going through it all yet, but I do really like the fact that she suggests planning the next section as you write the current one. I think that’s a reasonable way to meet in the middle of planning and pantsing. I cannot plan that far ahead, and even an outline of the whole book is too much for me. But I can outline the next section (usually).

      • Excellent! Yeah, my favorite thing about that book is that she basically says, “Here are the things you should be thinking about, and here’s a worksheet that might help you.” She spends more time explaining the thought process behind the worksheets and planning than forcing the worksheets down your throat. (Except for the part where she suggests you buy a new copy of her book for each novel you write, so you can do all the worksheets in the book. HAHAHA NO.)

  4. Beth G

    I am writing an historical/modern book, and recently have had the courage to change the profession of one of the historical figures, which was a major big deal for me. I’ve also added some quite new elements into the modern part, all of this happening during extended day dreaming. I guess the main thing is to stay flexible.

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